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Joshua Prager's Half-Life

HalfLife_Byliner_396_612_35I recently finished Joshua Prager's Half-Life: Reflections from Jerusalem on a Broken Neck. Prager was a young man of nineteen studying in Jerusalem when the bus he was riding in was slammed by another vehicle -- not an act of terrorism, as one might have assumed, (especially when a Palestinian driver hits a bus full of Jews), but simple carelessness and bad driving. His neck was broken, a moment of rupture which divided his life irrevocably into a "before" and an "after."

The book's narrative curls around and loops in on itself. We read about Prager as a hale and hearty student; we read about him paralyzed; we read about the morning of the crash, and the last bodily freedom he remembers; we read about physical therapy and the excruciating effort to regain bodily control. Learning to breathe and to sit again. From quadriplegic to hemiplegic to walking, albeit with difficulty, with a cane.

We return with Prager to Jerusalem, and as voyeurs on his shoulder we accompany him as he slowly makes his way through the city where his life changed. Navigating, for instance, the cobbled streets and uneven city curbs which I remember from pushing a stroller there in the summer of 2008 with my housemates' three-year-old in tow.

This book is full of poignant tension between what was, and what is, and what might yet be. The same could be said of Jerusalem, with its storied history and contested present and future. As Prager himself notes: "This ancient city is a palimpsest, its narratives written and rewritten on white stone." This memoir's structure evokes that quality. At the beginning of any new section, we might be in the now or we might be in the then -- or any moment in between. Even in the now, the then peeks through.

Prager approaches his subject with clear eyes and deft turns of phrase. I admire his ability to write so candidly about his experience, without sentimentality and without sparing anyone, including the reader. The scene where he goes to meet the driver of the minibus responsible for his injuries is a particularly fine example of that. He doesn't sugar-coat and he doesn't flinch from what is -- and he also resists the urge to demonize or oversimplify. (You can hear him tell that story in his TED talk, which I've linked to below.)

One of the book's most memorable moments for me (as a rabbi and sometime hospital chaplain) is the scene where the rabbi emeritus of his synagogue walks into his hospital room and loudly prays over his prone body. Prager writes:

I was mortified. No, rabbi! NO!

But I, who one month before had wrestled a trio of classmates, pinning each, was unable to fend off a rabbi in his eightieth year. And as the litany unfurled -- God asked to shine his face upon me, to be gracious to me, to lift up his countenance to me, to give me peace -- I wished to disappear. But I saw over my stockinged feet that the congregation was not listening, the yellow man beside me, his saffron urine bagged between us, minding his tea. And so I succumbed to a blessing.

In some ways this whole memoir feels to me like a book about succumbing to blessing with grace, and also a book about fighting for every inch of recovery and understanding. The two coexist sometimes uneasily, and that tension is part of what drives the narrative forward.

Prager resists the platitudes -- "everything happens for a reason" or "God only gives us what we can handle." (Two of the top sentences on my list of things never to say to hospital patients, by the by.) But he also resists, I think, the sense that if God doesn't have a "plan" then our lives is meaningless. I experienced this book as Prager's work at making meaning out of his own life, out of the lived Torah of his human experience. And in reading about his process, we join him in making, or finding, meaning too.

You can read an excerpt online here. To my surprise, the Kindle edition is only $3.99 on Amazon. Worth a read.


For more:

Joshua Prager's TED talk, In search of the man who broke my neck [video]

The Q & A: Joshua Prager: Reconstituting a Self, The Economist

Not a sign of defeat, but a sign of engagement

I just shared a post about prayer and parenthood. (Which has garnered some lovely comments, by the way; thanks, y'all!) Next up, I wanted to offer something different. Variety being the spice of life, and all that. But apparently the writing I'm doing this week is either for other sources (and therefore not publishable here), or is on these same themes. As my mentor Jason Shinder used to say, "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work." I guess this intersection is the work in which I'm immersed at this moment in time.

Lately, in fits and starts, I've been reading Verlyn Klinkenborg's Several short sentences about writing. I've dogeared the page where this appears:

But if you accept that writing is hard work,
And that's what it feels like while you're writing,
Then everything is just as it should be.
Your labor isn't a sign of defeat.
It's a sign of engagement.
The difference is all in your mind, but what a difference.

He's talking about the writing life, of course, though (predictably) I've been thinking of this as pertaining to spiritual life, too. Writing life, spiritual life: both will inevitably contain times when "the thrill is gone," when the spark doesn't feel as though it's there; times when one has to work hard just to get the boulder moving up the hill, or when the journey is arduous instead of scintillating. And that's not a sign of failure, as Klinkenborg notes: it's a sign that one is engaged in something that matters.

Or, taking his words in a different direction, try this paraphrase:

But if you accept that parenting is hard work,
And that's what it feels like while you're parenting,
Then everything is just as it should be.
Your labor isn't a sign of defeat.
It's a sign of engagement.
The difference is all in your mind, but what a difference.

Parenting is hard work! And it's supposed to be. Though rearing a four-year-old presents different challenges than caring for an infant, it's still work. I still struggle to maintain the good humor, the equanimity, the right balance of gentleness and firmness to which I aspire. I still fall down on the job, snap at our son when I didn't mean to, drive myself up a tree with fruitless attempts to convince him to try a food which he doesn't already know he enjoys. But if I take Klinkenborg to heart, then the fact that parenting is hard work doesn't mean I'm failing at it -- on the contrary, it means I'm doing it well.

Just so with spiritual life. Sometimes my prayer life and my spiritual consciousness "jut flows," and sometimes it feels as though the channels are blocked, as though God isn't listening -- or maybe as though I can't muster the focus to be listening in return. Sometimes I can't wait to set aside time for daily prayer, and other times I want to skip it all and just go back to sleep. That doesn't mean I'm failing in my spiritual life. If I'm paying enough attention to notice that sometimes it's easy, and sometimes it's hard, then I'm paying attention, period, and that's an essential component of spiritual life.

And just so with writing. Whether I'm writing poetry, or blog posts, or essays, there's work involved in choosing the right words and putting them in the right order -- reading them aloud, winnowing a word here and a phrase there, reading them aloud again -- paying attention to white space, scrapping the boring words and replacing them with words which (ideally) sing. That's the craft of writing. Sometimes it feels like flying, but more often it feels like building a stone wall, testing it for soundness, taking it apart, building it again. (Which is why Stone Work, by John Jerome, manages to be simultaneously about building a stone wall and about the writing life. I miss you, John.)

As Thomas Lux wrote in his poem "An Horatian Notion" (one of the few poems I've ever memorized):

...Inspiration, the donnée

the gift, the bolt of fire
down the arm that makes the art?
Give me, please, a break!
You make the thing because you love the thing
and you love the thing because someone else loved it
enough to make you love it.

(I wrote a kind of d'var Torah on that poem a while back -- What are we here for?) Poetry doesn't come from a bolt of fire. Sustained spiritual practice doesn't either. Though sometimes peak spiritual experiences can involve a kind of ecstatic blaze, the way to cultivate that flame is to tend it carefully, day in and day out, even when you don't feel like keeping the fire burning. The way to cultivate poetry is to keep writing and revising it. And as for parenting -- I don't think one gets a choice, having become a parent, about whether or not to keep doing it on a daily basis! These are long-haul journeys. We enter into them trusting that there will be blessings to balance the labor.

There's something beautiful, to me, in the idea that these lifelong practices take work, and that they're supposed to take work. It's okay if writing is hard -- if spiritual life is hard -- if parenting is hard. "The labor isn't a sign of defeat. / It's a sign of engagement." It's how we know we're actually in the world, doing work that matters.

Privilege, prayer, parenthood

Mudra_000There's a teaching from the Maggid of Mezritch about morning prayer. I love this teaching -- and I also struggle with it. Here it is:

Take special care to guard your tongue
   before the morning prayer.
Even greeting your fellow, we are told,
    can be harmful at that hour.
A person who wakes up in the morning is
    like a new creation.
Begin your day with unkind words
    or even trivial matters --
    even though you may later turn to prayer,
    you have not been true to your creation.
All of your words each day
    are related to one another.
All of them are rooted
    in the first words that you speak.

(That's as cited in Your Word is Fire: The Hasidic Masters on Contemplative Prayer.)

It's a beautiful teaching. I love the idea of taking special care to guard what comes out of my mouth, especially first thing in the morning. I love the idea that when one wakes up in the morning one is like a new creation. I love the idea that all of the words I will speak in a day are rooted, somehow, in the first words I uttered upon waking. What a beautiful idea, to keep silence until it's time for morning prayer, and to begin the day with praise and song. I've done that on retreat, and it's a joy.

Here's the thing, though: most of us don't live on retreat. Most of us don't have the luxury of beginning the day in perfect silence and contemplation, gliding into a joyful morning service, and only then engaging in trivial or ordinary speech. Most of the people I know wake up to someone's needs: the needs of children, the needs of parents, the needs of a sick or disabled partner, the needs of animals. Who has the luxury of avoiding "trivial matters" until after morning prayer? Certainly not me.

I think it's possible that the holy Maggid, may his memory be a blessing, was speaking out of a kind of privilege. Something tells me he wasn't waking up to care for a child who chatters and expects answers -- presumably that was his wife's job.

Continue reading "Privilege, prayer, parenthood" »

Pekudei: lessons on sacred space and on cultivating Mystery

Tabernacle-GloryHere's the d'var Torah which I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

At the end of this week's Torah portion, Pekudei, we read about Moshe setting up the mishkan, the place where the Shekhinah would dwell -- in English, the "tabernacle." He sets up the tent, erects screens to delineate different spaces, lights lamps and makes offerings. We learn that he and Aaron and Aaron's sons would wash their hands and feet upon entering and upon approaching the altar, a physical act intended to cultivate spiritual purity of intention. And we read that a cloud of God's presence covered the tent, and filled the tent so fully that no one could enter. When the cloud lifted, the people would journey; when the cloud descended, they would camp.

This taste of Torah teaches us some things about sacred space. Sacred space requires careful preparation. Sacred space requires attentiveness to detail. Moshe sets up the screens in part to protect the people from the spiritual power of God's presence; sacred space needs to be safe. Sacred space makes demands of us: that we keep the light of memory burning. That we cleanse our hands of wrongful actions, and our feet of the dust from unjust or unkind paths. This is how we set the stage for an encounter with God.

Of course, this encounter doesn't only happen in synagogues. The labor and delivery room where our son was born felt, to me, so suffused with God's Presence that there was barely space for people in the room. When I have been blessed to sit at the bedside of someone who is dying, I have felt God's Presence hovering over the bed like a mother bird. Maybe you have felt that Presence at those times too -- or while walking in the woods, while breathing in the charged air just before a storm, while immersing in the endless motion of the sea.

When the cloud of glory lifted, the people would travel. We can't live in exquisite awareness of God's presence all the time. No matter how powerful the experience -- whether it's prayer or yoga, childbirth or seeing the aurora borealis -- we have to return to mochin d'katnut, small consciousness. That's how we're able to venture forth, to do our work in the world. And when the Presence descends again, we enter mochin d'gadlut, expansive consciousness -- and we are transfixed for a time by the experience of being in the Presence of Mystery.

If Mystery can be experienced in these solitary and personal ways, why go to the trouble of building the mishkan? Because the mishkan is the spiritual technology given to our ancestors for cultivating that experience. In coming together to build a beautiful place where God's presence could dwell, they cultivated community, and they cultivated spiritual life. A mystical experience might happen in the wilderness, or at a moment of great emotional import -- but it can't be predicted. The mishkan was our way of domesticating the peak experience. Bringing it home. Building a home for it.

In order for a spiritual practice to be sustaining, in order for connection with God to be there when we need it, some maintenance is required. If I wanted to be able to hike Mount Greylock, I'd have to exercise regularly enough that when the mountain is before me, I'd have the endurance to climb. If we want to be able to ascend to the spiritual heights of connection with God, we have to exercise our spiritual muscles regularly enough that when the opportunity for connection is before us, we have the strength and the tools we need to make that trip.

Once our ancestors practiced daily connection with God through fire: burning incense, burning sacrifices, sending a pleasing odor to God. Today we practice that connection through prayer: saying, in Anne Lamott's words, "help" and "thanks" and "wow" until they become second nature. Today the mishkan that we tend is a Mishkan T'filah, as it were; a tabernacle of prayer. It's the community where we practice our help and thanks and wow. It's the altar of our own ardent hearts.


Image of the cloud of glory over the mishkan: found via google image search. Artist unknown. If you can identify the artist, please do and I'll add attribution!